Inner Dimensions of Prayer
Notes from a group reading of the timeless book by Ibn Al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya.
Introduction — My MSA’s Ramadan Reading Book Club
Alhamdulillah, this year, I am about to wrap up my second term serving as the chairperson of my university’s Muslim Students Association. At the beginning of the latest semester, I threw out some ideas to my committee, one of which I was super enthusiastic about: a book club. The semester went by and we had events big and small, and I was frantically attempting to manage and keep on top of all we did as a society. I had been chairing remotely (don’t even ask how) from Spain in the first semester, so upon my return I upped the ante in a major way, and the semester was destined to be our most active in my three-year history with MSA, as our smashing post-lockdown comeback, alhamdulillah. The book club idea fell by the wayside. No one picked it up, and I didn’t have time to, nor did I want to impose the idea if no one else seem interested in it. However! Ramadan has rolled around alhamdulillah, and before the blessed month began, we did an overhaul of all our regular activities and events to cater to activities specifically for the month. A dear committee member suggested the book club once again, and I was thrilled, to say the least.
My uncompromising criteria for the book club had always been that it had to be casual, which meant no assigned reading, and that it had to be a drop-in event, so anyone who stops by at any time of any session could benefit from it. To this end, we intended to select a small range of books with Islamic themes: one on spirituality, one on Islamic history, one about an influential Muslim figure, and one on a contemporary socio-Islamic matter.
The goal of this was to introduce people to more Islamic literature, and as a society that had a range of social, sport, and spiritual events, to provide something for our more bookish members, and a home-grown intellectually stimulating event (i.e. that didn’t require us inviting a guest scholar months in advance). I am a strong believer in the power of self-sufficiency from pooled talent and knowledge of young and cultured Muslims and our thoughtfulness with selected texts set us up to remain well clear of interpreting or delving into Islamic theological or jurisprudential matters without sufficient qualification as students of knowledge.
(In sha Allah, I have pieces coming soon about the internship which inspired the book club, among many other things; as well as a review/survival guide for all things Muslim student organisations, which I have an intense and extensive relationship with, for better or worse!)
The committee selected the following four books:
- Inner Dimensions of Prayer by Ibn Al-Qayyim Jawziyya
- The Road to Mecca by Muhammad Asad (formerly Leopold Weiss)
- The Sealed Nectar (a well-known biography of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) by Darussalam publisher
- Palestinians and Israelis: A Short History of Conflict by Michael Scott-Baumann
Our first session was last Saturday online from 2 to 3 PM Dublin Time on Zoom (you are very welcome to join if you would like, dear reader). A brother on the committee was worried about numbers, as our spiritual and academic events tend to draw in a smaller crowd than our socials, so I was chirping ‘quality over quantity’ down the mic, reminding him that even if just a few people come and benefit and we have a quality discussion, it could be better, more blessed, and more pleasing to Allah than dozens who don’t bring the same enthusiasm or do not enrich the discussion.
We had a lovely crowd of six, and I couldn’t help reflecting afterwards how relaxed and happy I was throughout the whole session (I had hosted a massive Ramadan fundraising and social event for the MSA just the night before, and though I enjoyed it, there was something more pleasing to my soul and senses about our wee book club). The intimacy and sincerity of a small closed group was warming, and flow, openness and barakah was the tone for our discussion. Alhamdulillah.
We started reading, and the first paragraph in, it was a zinger. SubhanAllah, every time I read or listen to an exegesis of a text written by a classical scholar, I am always amazed. I come for spirituality and I receive brilliant prose and flourishing language. I come, expecting fiddly, wordy, detailed explanations of the matters of the heart and other intangible spiritual phenomena, but the authors are blessed with the inheritance of the Prophet’s ability to say so much with so few words. I come, expecting to read a book, but I leave being forced to read my soul. These are well known to be from the endless bounties and wonders of seeking knowledge anyway, alhamdulillah, but they never fail to amaze me, and remind me why seeking knowledge is such a noble pursuit for every believer striving for excellence.
So in our little book club, reading a book so special and enlightening, we are being blessed and teased with a taste of all the sweetness acquiring knowledge can bring. We loved this book in particular so much that instead of moving to extracts from our other books, we will be continuing on with this one!
Allow me to share some of what I recall from our exciting discussion. I express most of these reflections as my own, but of course, combined with and inspired by the reflections of dear fellow book club participants. Please find the PDF of the book here, I implore you to read it for yourself. We begin from the PDF’s page 18:
1.1 — The Salah is tranquility for worshippers and Allah’s gift to the believers
The author states, off the bat, that prayer is an amazing gift and blessing, ‘without any doubt’. He speaks of prayer and who it resonates with, in terms of their status and relationship with Allah.
Prayer is: tranquility, enjoyment, a garden, the essence of enjoyment, a test, and a measurement of resilience.
For: devotees (but the Arabic word in brackets contains the root word used for love, so this could perhaps be translated as ‘lovers’ too, as sincere love for God manifests in devotion anyway*), pure monotheists, worshippers, humble ones, sincere ones, and ones embarking the right path.
We have been taught about and guided to prayer, which is the greatest gift possible, as what better gift is there than an act that brings one so close to God and His pleasure? And what more beautiful harmony is there than that between our hearts and bodies, in submission to Allah, and in conformity with our purpose and fitra?
If we wanted to paraphrase this, the sentiment is obviously one of passion and exclamation: Allah literally just wants to give you this amazing thing, just because! Just because He is so Generous, Gracious and Merciful! SubhanAllah!
What an introduction! Ibn Al-Qayyim sets the picture straight immediately, making us embarrassed to have ever seen our prayers as a chore, burden or having given them anything less than their deserved meaning and reverence.
(*we did read the book in English, but I am very curious as to what the experience would be reading it in the nuance and depth of its original Arabic. I am also always fascinated by translation and how we choose to represent words, which are in themselves, descriptions and signals of things that exist. This is a thought that has been even heavier on my mind since reading the introduction to Al-Ghazali’s ‘The Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God’ where he describes and explains words, names, attributes and metaphors on an insane linguistic philosophical level…
Anyway, with the lovers/devotees matter, it makes sense why Sufi poetry has now been co-opted as a hippie-dippie romantic concept — the Islamic submissive, worship-adoration aspect has been lost in translation, and it seems to be just vague universal adoration, so people quote Rumi when speaking about their exes, and miss the metaphor for intoxication of spiritual ecstasy as a reference to psychedelics and alcohol, but I digress…)
It is a romantic, intimate description of devotion, of the body being focused and on a singular mission, and the mind void of anything but the thoughts of Allah in prayer. Essentially true love, by any comparison we can understand of love.
Let’s note here, that the author says that Allah has indeed tested us with human desires, lusts and temptations BUT/AND has given us the exactly adequate tool, by His wisdom to help us overcome this. It reminds me of the final verse of Surah Al-Baqara where we are told that Allah does not burden a soul beyond what it can bear, and of how we are taught in hadith that Allah has not created a disease without a cure. By His mercy, the same is absolutely true for spiritual burdens and diseases, alhamdulillah.
We were really interested in the comparison of prayer to a feast! Firstly, this implies that prayer is a delectable and luxurious thing. Then the author describes how we are invited to this nourishing banquet multiple times a day, and how each flavour and course is distinct with its own blessings and qualities.
And like food doesn’t just eliminate hunger, but also satisfies and nourishes, the prayer is not only atonement, but also light! Prayer is explained to us as the transformative gem it is for us in this life and the next: how are hearts are strengthened by it, how it earns us the love of others, how ‘Angels and also the earth with its mountains, trees and rivers rejoice’ (subhanAllah!!), and how on the Day of Judgement, it will be a source of light and reward.
1.2 — The Likeness of the Heart to the Earth
Firstly, I love metaphors that use nature. I think of the Qur’an and how hearts can be like stones producing varying amounts of water…
The wisdom of the gaps between the five daily prayers is referenced here, which is a beautiful thing to contemplate. How interesting when we consider how we are obliged to start and end our days with the remembrance of Allah, and how we must pray at the time when we are busiest and most caught up in our worldly pursuits…
Ibn Al-Qayyim also mentions that this connection is metered out so that we achieve the utmost benefit from it, as we remain in anticipation and mindfulness of the next prayer constantly, and taste periods of yearning for the prayer again and again. The simile of rain that showers crops periodically is interesting, and can be further stretched: rain must be frequent enough that the crops never experience drought, and at the same time, not so close together that the crops are flooded and unable to absorb the rain’s goodness. SubhanAllah, and it also prompts me to think of how the initial commandment for prayer was fifty times a day, but this was reduced to five with the reward of fifty. Firstly, Allah’s wisdom is perfect as always, and His generosity is obvious. Secondly, it makes me think how much we ought to really be remembering Allah, Magnificent and Exalted, in our days, and how easy we have it when we consider Who we’re praying to and why.
The rest of the section is so beautifully explained and the logical extrapolations from the metaphor are so well-fitting, that we read this section a few times, alhamdulillah.
1.3 — The heart becomes dry when devoid of Pure Monotheism
The water of the heart is a combination of love, knowledge, remembrance, supplication, and pure monotheism to, for, and of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala. We see here the heart, the mind, the limbs and the soul all necessary here.
The lack of any of these has dire consequences, and subtracting any of the above elements from the equation makes clear why.
No love means only fear, and this is an inappropriate relationship to have with Allah if you know who He really is. No knowledge means ignorance, and trying to follow a path to Allah with no idea how to actually get to Him. No remembrance of Allah means no mindfulness of Him, and a life where He is far away from the mind and heart and exists only as a concept. No supplication to Allah means a failure to understand who He is and your relationship to him as a servant, it means a lack of reliance on Him. No pure monotheism means no faith, the consequence of which goes without saying… These nourishers of the heart are interdependent, and like all elements of Islam, are simple, logical and holistic.
Again, the self-explanatory conclusion of dry and moist trees’ branches propensities to bend (responsively to the call to worship) and to burn (by the fire of desires) is beautifully explained here by Ibn Al-Qayyim.
The final sentence of this section is very interesting. The author speaks about the ability of the limbs* to fulfil their responsibility to worship, but if they are stopped from the root, they will be unable to. Considering this: it is very easy to perform the physical motions of standing, bowing and prostrations, but for what good reason would any of these be done if there is no inclination from the heart to do so? Take Iblis for example, who had been worshipping since his creation, but upon the corruption of his heart, was unable to obey God by prostrating to Adam. Our externalities can only ever manifest what is within us, whether this is submission or heedlessness.
*again, I am curious about the translation here, because I have previously seen ‘limbs’ translated as more than just arms and legs, and more generally as externalities, including the tongue.
1.4 — Divisions of People in regards to the actions of limbs
This part was very self-explanatory to us. May Allah make us all from the first group, ameen.
There is a difference here between the outright evil, and the willfully ignorant and lazy, about which interestingly Ibn Al-Qayyim condemns the latter even more than the former.
1.5 — Parable in Three Types of People
This section we read a few times, particularly the final section as we misunderstood the example of the third type.
What is interesting is that all three examples of men are given a farm and tools, and the question becomes whether each uses both wisely and usefully.
In the first example, the man tends diligently to the farm with his given tools and maintains it, creating beautiful harvests. This is like the man who sees to his inner state constantly, purifying himself of evil, and sowing seeds of good, and allowing his heart and entire being to flourish in the bliss and toil of worship and submission.
Thinking further, a farmer needs not only good land to begin with (this goes back to how we are all born with a clean slate and capacity and choice to do good), but also technique and wisdom (which go back to having knowledge of the religion and matters of the self) in order to know how to maximise the potential of his land. Not only this, but farmland cannot be constantly over-exploited, as the wise farmer knows that land also needs to rest…
In the second example, Ibn Al-Qayyim emphasises that the man not only desecrates the land, but also uses the tools he had been given to benefit the land to help in his evil machinations upon the land.
Thinking of the tools/blessings which we are given to worship Allah in various ways in our lives, their misuse is the greatest form of ingratitude to the Bestower of these blessings. It also prompts me to think of how the opposite of disbelief (kufr) is said by scholars to be gratitude (shukr). This is a beautiful and fascinating concept.
The third example, which I and the book club gang initially misunderstood, refers to the one who is distracted and foolish when it comes to their life’s purpose, equated with someone given land and who left it fallow, and ‘wasted the water in the desert’, implying misuse of the tools given on something completely pointless (as water poured in a desert will just evaporate, much like the temporary pleasures of this world).
I ask Allah to protect us from falling into the actions that make us from among the second and the third, knowingly or unknowingly…
We are told that the second and third are absorbed by their misery and lost in their heedlessness respectively, while the first group are surrounded by a grace that infuses blessings into their daily lives.
Ibn Al-Qayyim also mentions the ‘diverse abundance of actions and rites of worhsip’, which again reminds us of the mercy and generosity of Allah. Aside from prayer, we know that there are thousands of actions, ritual and non-ritual, that can be considered an act of worship with the right intentions. But even within the prayer, Allah has made is so that we are not sitting still repeating a single word over again; He has given us bowing, standing, sitting, prostrating, different chapters from the Qur’an to read in each unit of prayer, different supplications (dua) and different adhkar we can make each time too. SubhanAllahi wa bi hamdihi.
Finally, the conclusion of this section had me thinking on a reflection that shook me quite recently in life, and that I share with anyone who will listen, in case it might benefit someone who thinks the way I used to. Ibn Al-Qayyim speaks about ‘every word, action, silence and movement’ of the prayer.
The mention of the details of prayer reminded me of my epiphany. When I first began practising, I was in a haze of joy and general feel-good vibes, alhamdulillah. I prayed and connected with the Qur’an, but was mostly focused on the Bigger Picture, which was the goal of finding myself in the embrace of Allah’s pleasure and proximity.
Now, we return for a minute to what I mentioned earlier about a lack of knowledge when on a journey to Allah, ‘trying to follow a path to Allah with no idea how to actually get to Him’. My thirst for knowledge began soon after this phase, as I realised subconsciously that my feel-good vibes would not actually get me very far, and within the Qur’an, I was reminded that I have been blessed with guidance and instruction that can help me, step by step, on the return journey to Allah.
I used to wonder about the point of the minute details of fiqh, the point of the focus on the position of your knees, fingers and toes when all that really mattered was Who you were praying to. I never saw the real importance of tajweed when reciting the Qur’an, because to me, all that mattered was the essence and substance of God’s word, not the fine details of how each letter was pronounced.
But subhanAllah, at some point, it clicked. The essence of devotion. The attention to detail. The desire for excellence. Firstly, these details themselves are a means for us to align every part of our beings with the act of worship we do, and our striving towards reaching them is a demonstration of how much we care about pleasing Allah as much as possible. These details adorn our acts of worship and make them even more enjoyable to us, connecting us with the One who is excellent and has prescribed excellence in all things.
I gave the analogy:
If you were buying a gift for someone you loved dearly, and you knew their favourite colour, would you not choose that colour for the gift and wrapping paper? If you were cooking a meal for someone you loved, and you knew they liked a certain spice or a certain ratio of ingredients, you wouldn’t think twice about catering to their preferences in order to create a meal that you know they would appreciate and enjoy. And Allah, Exalted and High, is far above these examples.
We are in a loving relationship with Allah. We know what He loves because He has told us and prescribed it for us. Why would we think twice about our attention to detail when fulfilling this love to Him?
So dear friends, I shall be back again soon in sha Allah, with our next set of reflections from the book club. See you then, may Allah bless you and allow us to meet again then in ’afiyah (health, imaan, contentment, the whole shebang).